Compared to Shanghai—let along Hong Kong, Singapore, and that summit of culinary summits, Tokyo—Beijing’s fine dining scene still has a long way to go. There’s a lot of mediocrity swimming in a sea of pretense and new money. At the end of the day, Beijingers are a rough-and-ready lot who prefer Sichuan hotpot in a hole-in-the-wall. We recently ate at S.T.A.Y. (pictured), three Michelin-starred chef Yannick Alleno’s outpost at the Shangri-La Beijing. The service was good, the food above average, but the room was utterly dead—we were one of four tables.
But back to the Sichuan hotpot: Beijing has a pretty comprehensive array of restaurants serving regional cuisines. Ten years ago, most Chinese food fanatics would have told you Taipei and Hong Kong were the best places for Chinese food, Beijing being littered with restaurants that served greasy gristle. (Communism plus Cultural Revolution equals abysmal food.) Since we moved here, I’ve had some solid Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou, Cantonese, Nanjing, Xinjiang, and even Taiwanese meals here—in nice settings, surrounded mostly by Chinese people.
I’ve also had a disturbing amount of Peking duck (and somehow haven’t gained a 100 pounds), and am astonished by the number of rival schools on one dish. There’s the old guard—Quanjude, Liqun, and the Ming dynasty-era Bianyifang (now in fancy new digs)—versus the new upstarts such as the posh Duck de Chine, Made in China in the Grand Hyatt, Lunar 8 in the Fairmont, Peking Duck Private Kitchen, Xihe Yayuan, and Da Dong.
The city’s nightlife is impressive, with plenty of choices ranging from raucous rock clubs to sophisticated hotel bars, though my relatively advanced age and the Great Beijing Taxi Shortage means I haven’t thoroughly explored the scene. This town seems to teem with a.) twenty-something Yale graduates with flawless Mandarin and serious business plans and b.) twenty-something scensters with a vague dream to start a brewery/design studio/tech start-up/dance troupe.
One great newcomer has a familiar name, Bar Veloce. Leon Lee, the Chinese-American entrepreneur behind Apothecary, has teamed up with Frederick Twomey to open an outpost in 1949, a complex of restored courtyard houses in the Sanlitun neighborhood. It’s a small slice of New York in the heart of the Chinese capital: exposed brick walls, a simple menu of salads, bruschettas, and paninis, and a terrific, well-priced wine list by manager and sommelier Krishna Hathaway, formerly of Aman at the Summer Palace.
Jennifer Chen is Travel + Leisure's Asia correspondent. You can follow her on Twitter at xiaochen6.